James M. Lindsay

The Water's Edge

Lindsay analyzes the politics shaping U.S. foreign policy and the sustainability of American power.

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Obama Speaks to the UN General Assembly

by James M. Lindsay
September 25, 2012

President Barack Obama addresses the 67th United Nations General Assembly. (Shannon Stapleton/ courtesy Reuters) President Barack Obama addresses the 67th United Nations General Assembly. (Shannon Stapleton/ courtesy Reuters)


CFR.org just posted a First Take that I did on President Obama’s speech to the UN General Assembly this morning.  The speech was fairly predictable, and it was undoubtedly aimed as much at American voters as it was to the delegates in the auditorium. Obama denounced the recent wave of attacks on U.S. diplomatic facilities, defended freedom of speech, called for the condemnation of hatred and intolerance directed at any religion, and warned yet again of the dangers that a nuclear-armed Iran would pose.

One topic that Obama discussed at length that I didn’t mention in my CFR.org piece was Syria. The president denounced a “dictator who massacres his people” and pledged to “stand with those Syrians who believe in a different vision” for their country. But to those hoping—or fearing—that Obama would do more to stop “a regime that tortures children and shoots rockets at apartment buildings,” he offered nothing new. Washington will impose sanctions and threaten those who commit war crimes with prosecution. U.S. military intervention or support, however, is not in the cards.

In all, Obama gave just the sort of speech one would expect just six weeks before Election Day in a race that looks headed for the wire and with Republicans intensifying their criticisms of his foreign policy. Diplomats from around the world may have been in the auditorium with Obama, but his real audience was American voters. And his message to them was: I stand up for American interests and values, and I am not about to plunge U.S. troops into yet another messy conflict in the Middle East.

(P.S. While President Obama was speaking to UN delegates in Turtle Bay, Mitt Romney was speaking in Midtown Manhattan at the Clinton Global Initiative’s annual meeting. I haven’t had a chance to read the governor’s speech in its entirety yet, but its main point seems to be that more conditions should be attached to foreign aid. As previous presidents have discovered, that is easier said than done, especially when it comes to countries that Washington wants something from. Just think back three years to the flap in Pakistan over the Kerry-Lugar-Berman bill.)

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  • Posted by Philip Weldon

    Both very informative articles. The Syrian and Iranian issues are going to be deciders in the foreign policy element of the US election, and the overall state of politics and security in the middle East. Iran poses a threat to Middle Eastern stability, Israel and to greater human liberty. Syria is an obvious threat to the balance of power in East/West relations – and has proved itself to be so already.

    The answer to the Iranian and Syrian problem (and others who follow this typical style of statehood) lies in using NGOs, transnational organisations and public and private bodies to exert some form of influence over these so called “leaderships” (I use that term lightly) – and end their reigns of horror. The task is to mobilize a generation of advocates who seek to promote cooperation between nations and bridge gaps in the sea of politics, undermining the current leaderships. This can be justified simply by saying that both Presidents are not acting in accordance with the fundamental rules of statehood and social contract – serve the good of the people; provide peace and security.

    And of course, Israel can play a role in forging these alliances, becoming a leader in the process. But until then, Iran is a threat to the nation’s stability and the entire Middle East. Diplomats must work to forge alliances (private and public) to further curb Iranian influence in the region and in essence form a new generation of leadership here.

  • Posted by kafantaris

    The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution itself are both utopian, and both over 200 years old. But unlike other utopias, the one our forefathers embraced works.
    It has an ingenious mechanism to revitalize its institutions: Freedom of speech.
    As John Stuart Mill explained, when a society allows its citizens to question its government, its values and its most sacred beliefs, the examination finds errors and things for improvement.
    But even when no correction at all is needed, the challenge in itself works miracles — it forces us to defend them.
    If things prove fine after such “stress test,” we learn that we are on the right track. Merely knowing this wipes away uncertainty and replaces it with life and vigor.
    Such is the hidden benefit of open debate — and the reason why institutions elsewhere stagnate and die.
    And no one rushes to save them because people have forgotten long before why they are there in the first place. This is the grave danger John Mill warned us about.
    The fathers of this country gave heed to his words.
    Perhaps the fathers of new democracies should do the same.

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